Cosmology? Bah, Humbug!


Hello and welcome to my cosmology and astroscience blog.

Is Cosmology fact or fiction, science or fairy tale? Do we need it? Is it good for us? Does it have any useful purpose? Should we be confined to a Standard Model?

Civil, rational comments are welcome, rudeness and manic euphoria are discouraged. Let me know what you think of my  website and the articles on it.

Hilton Skywalker


(from chapter 12 of The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt)


In the book Moral, Believing Animals, the sociologist Christian Smith writes about moral matrices within which human life takes place. He agrees with Durkheim that every social order has at its core something sacred, and he shows how stories, particularly “grand narratives,” identify and reinforce the sacred core of each matrix.  Smith is a master at extracting these grand narratives, condensing them into single paragraphs. Each narrative, he says, identifies a beginning (“once upon a time”), a middle (in which a threat or challenge arises), and an end (in which a resolution is achieved). Each narrative is designed to orient listeners morally—to draw their attention to a set of virtues and vices, or good and evil forces—and to impart lessons about what can be done now to protect, recover, or attain the sacred core of the vision.

One such narrative, which Smith calls the “liberal progress narrative,” organises much of the moral matrix of the American academic left. It goes like this:

“Once upon a time, the vast majority of human persons suffered in societies and social institutions that were unjust, unhealthy, repressive, and oppressive. These traditional societies were reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation, and irrational traditionalism… But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality, and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression, and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, welfare societies. While modern social conditions hold the potential to maximise the individual freedom and pleasure of all, there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation, and repression. This struggle for the good society in which individuals are equal and free to pursue their self-defined happiness is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”

This narrative’s general plotline should be recognisable to leftists everywhere. It’s a heroic liberation narrative. Authority, hierarchy, power, and tradition must be broken to free the “noble aspirations” of the victims.

Smith wrote this narrative before Moral Foundations Theory existed, but you can see that the narrative derives its moral force primarily from the Care/Harm foundation (concern for the suffering of victims), and the Liberty/Oppression foundation (a celebration of liberty as freedom from oppression as well as freedom to pursue self-defined happiness). In this narrative, Fairness is political equality (which is part of opposing oppression); there are only oblique hints of Fairness as proportionality. Authority is mentioned only as an evil, and there is no mention of Loyalty or Sanctity.

Contrast that narrative to one for modern conservatism. The clinical psychologist Drew Westen is another master of narrative analysis, and in his book The Political Brain he extracts the master narrative that was implicit, and sometimes explicit, in the major speeches of Ronald Reagan.

Reagan defeated Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980, a time when Americans were being held hostage in Iran, the inflation rate was over 10%, and America’s cities, industries, and self-confidence were declining. The Reagan narrative goes like this:

“Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way… Instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hard-working Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens. Instead of punishing criminals, they tried to ‘understand’ them. Instead of worrying about the victims of crime, they worried about the rights of criminals… Instead of adhering to traditional American values of family, fidelity, and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex, and the gay lifestyle… and they encouraged a feminist agenda that undermined traditional family roles… Instead of projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform, burned our flag, and chose negotiation and multilateralism… Then Americans decided to take their country back from those sought to undermine it.”

This narrative’s general plotline should be recognisable to conservatives everywhere. This too is a heroic narrative, but it’s heroism of defence. It’s less suited to being turned into a major motion picture. Rather than the visually striking image of crowds storming the Bastille and freeing prisoners, this narrative looks more like a family reclaiming its home from termites and then repairing the joists.

The Reagan narrative is also visibly conservative in that it relies for its moral force on at least five of the six moral foundations. There’s only a hint of Care (for the victims of crime), but there are very clear references to liberty (as freedom from government restraint), Fairness (as proportionality), Loyalty (soldiers and the flag), Authority (family and traditions), and Sanctity (God versus celebration of promiscuity).

The two narratives are as opposed as could be. Can partisans even understand the story told by the other side? The obstacles to empathy are not symmetrical. If the left builds moral matrices on a smaller number of moral foundations, then there is no foundation used by the left that is not also used by the right. Even though conservatives score slightly lower on measures of empathy, and may therefore be less moved by by a story about suffering and oppression, they can still recognise that it is awful to be kept in chains. And even though many conservatives opposed some of the great liberations of the twentieth century—of women, sweatshop workers, African Americans, and gay people—they have applauded others, such as the liberation of Eastern Europe from communist oppression.

But when liberals try to understand the Reagan narrative, they have a harder time. When I speak to liberal audiences about the three “binding” foundations—Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity—I find that many in the audience don’t just fail to resonate; they actively reject these concerns as immoral. Loyalty to a group shrinks the moral circle; it is the basis of racism and exclusion, they say. Authority is oppression. Sanctity is religious mumbo-jumbo whose only function is to suppress female sexuality and justify homophobia.

If you don’t see that Reagan is pursuing  Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity, you almost have to conclude that Republicans see no positive value in Care and Fairness. You might even go as far as Michael Feingold, a theatre critic for the liberal newspaper the Village Voice, when he wrote:

“Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destry the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster, and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t. Which is why I personally think they should be exterminated before they cause any more harm.”
One of the many ironies in this quotation is that it shows the inability of a theatre critic—who skilfully enters fantastical imaginary worlds for a living—to imagine that Republicans act within a moral matrix that differs from his own.

Morality binds and blinds.

Competing models

COMPETING MODELS from Capitalism: The Deregulation of Pressure


“…it is easy and satisfying…to fall for tales of an oppressive and greedy ‘1 per cent’ of wealthy capitalists—the Occupy Wall Street Effect—rather than coming to grips with the counterintuitive fact that it is only in the process of the 1 per cent becoming rich that much of the economic good for the 99 per cent is generated.”  — Peter Foster, Why We Bite the Invisible Hand.

The left is back, and it’s the only path we have to get out of the spot to which the right has sunken us. Socialism builds and capitalism destroys. – Hugo Chavez

They talk about the failure of socialism but where is the success of capitalism in Africa, Asia and Latin America? — Fidel Castro


The recent change in wealth creation in China is remarkable and eye-opening. Up to twenty years ago, high net-worth individuals became rich by political connection, mostly in real estate; by buying up land at below market values and re-selling it at artificially inflated profit, friends of the state had the privilege of unnatural personal riches.  The economic miracle of the last decade or so has been made possible only by permitting entrepreneurs to play the market with capital. The “communist” state has managed to create an environment where individual flair flourishes, resulting in more than a million Chinese with net worth exceeding $10 million, and well over a thousand dollar billionaires. The principle of human equality upon which communism rests has been abandoned.

This was achieved in short order by liberating the populace from restrictive socialist constraints on ownership of property and the means of production, and allowing those with initiative to participate in a competitive marketplace for their own benefit. The Ali Baba explosion rewrote the rule book. It is a classic, textbook case study in the effectiveness of free market capitalism in liberating people from prior economic drudgery so that they can prosper by their own hand and energy.

The euphoria of liberation carries its own particular dangers, though, and we need to heed them. The inherent work ethic, creativeness, and competitive spirit of the population that had been cowed by the yoke of socialism apply commensurate pressure on the champagne cork as it pops. The result has been described, here and elsewhere, as a miracle. There is no such thing of course, but the changes wrought by market access in societies for whom it had previously been politically denied are certainly startling and comprehensive. The liberation of East Germany is a prime example. I predict that we’ll see the same sort of “miracle” in Cuba in due course, and also in Venezuela if they can overcome militarily enforced socialism.

The “yoke of capitalism” and “economic slavery” are buzz words of a socially oppressive system that has no moral defence, no rational argument against the success of market capitalism in invigorating depressed economies, and no workable means of giving the broad mass of people what they really want. The data from competing models in the real world give socialism no quarter. They show that the real beneficiaries of socialism are the rulers; the people they are supposed to serve are worse off than they might otherwise have been, and given the choice, would no doubt quickly opt out. It’s there on the news every day: Economic refugees don’t head for socialist states. They make a bee line for countries where they are free to use their initiative to make a living. Do the maths…

The human influence on the biosphere is a bipartisan battleground. We could characterise it as competition between free-market capitalism and big-government socialism. Those, like me, who have come here via the University of Socks would generalise it even further–it is the old fight between instinct and free will.

Trade involves the voluntary exchange of ownership of goods or services from one party to another, based upon perceived relative values. It consequently includes barter and haggling so that the transaction is mutually beneficial. An environment that facilitates trade is called a market.  Trading originally comprised the direct exchange of goods and services for other goods and services. The market evolved in time so one side of the barter started to involve precious metals, which gained symbolic as well as practical importance. Essentially, this was the origin of money as a convenient medium of exchange, and as a result, buying could be separated from selling, or earning. The invention of money greatly simplified and encouraged trade.

It derives directly from the specialisation of labour, where specific tasks in a production process are performed by workers who have acquired the particular discrete skills required to manufacture complex goods. Trade allows widely dispersed people and regions to co-operate in a mutually beneficial way, although the parties may not be related or even know each other. In fact, commerce can be traced to the very beginning of communication in prehistoric times.

It is a global phenomenon, known in economics as the “extended order.” Peaceful cooperation beyond the bounds of clan and kinship is the socio-political backbone of our planet. It allows individuals and nations unequal in resources and resourcefulness to maintain their independence. Despite the laws and military might dominating geopolitics, people, in their own right, can find common ground and personal satisfaction in the marketplace, no matter with whom they bargain. Opinions and ideologies are put aside when the wellbeing of one’s family is at stake. We’ll strike a bargain with black, blue, or green to let Johnnie and Jilly go to school with a full stomach and shoes on their feet. The free market is egalitarian to a degree that even the most liberal of us could only dream of, yet it is a prime manifestation of the virtue of selfishness.

Excerpt from my book, Capitalism: The Deregulation of Pressure –

Excerpt from my book, Capitalism: The Deregulation of Pressure –

The primary weakness of democracy in practice is the absence of upward control. There appears therefore to be a pressing need for a democratic structure wherein the rank and file of citizenry can express themselves without fear or inhibition. In our view, such a system already exists. It is the option to purchase–and the freer the market, the freer the choice. People tell us directly and with negligible political nuance what they want from life when they give over their hard earned cash. The ballot is cast at the point of payment, and the government has practically no influence. Where the market is not free, the ballot is still cast, but it is a choice constrained by regulations from the top down. It is generally with astonishment that we discover just how comprehensive the market ballot actually is. It’s not just an indication of the purchaser’s material desires, it can and does reflect that person’s morality too.
Here is a real world example of what I mean. Free range eggs are more expensive than battery produced eggs, and sell in far lower quantities than the mass-produced equivalent. Immediately, we are shown a clear ballot on the morality of chicken batteries. Most customers simply don’t care, or don’t care enough to pay more to contribute to the happiness and wellbeing of chickens. A small minority does show compassion however, and is prepared to make financial sacrifices for its ethics. That is the power, integrity, and depth of the marketplace ballot. If enough of the market population adopts the morality of those few, it will effectively change the whole way that we farm with chickens. If no one buys battery eggs, no one will produce them. The problem would be solved by supply and demand, and voting with our wallets.
In my local grocery supermarket, free range eggs and battery produced eggs are offered side by side on the shelf. The will of the people is expressed by how much of each are sold. The ethical, moral decision is to purchase free range and boycott battery. That’s what you and I would do, but the broad mass of people doesn’t agree. They shop on price rather than ethics. The split between battery and free range is roughly 90 – 10 as a percentage.
The people have spoken. That’s the purity of supply and demand in reflecting the true will of the people. It has nothing, or nearly nothing, to do with what we can afford (the difference in price is cents rather than dollars) but what we really care about. The poorest of these customers could purchase a dollar less air time, or a dollar less vanity hair products, and spend that instead on upgrading to free range eggs. When more people vote for free range by exercising the ballot of purchase, two things will happen–one, the chicken batteries will go out of business (YAY!), and two, the price of free range eggs will drop. It is a beautiful model, because it’s natural. It’s not manufactured by some cunning individual to rip people off; it’s simply a consequence of production being in the hands of people whose wellbeing depends on satisfying their customers.
The vitally important conclusion to be drawn from the ballot-by-purchase model is that it can exist only in a market driven economy. It is entirely absent in economies where production is planned and controlled by the state, because there is no competition to keep production honest. Free competition is a moral watchdog that doesn’t charge for its services. In fact, it saves us money. Socialism removes free competition and encourages lower productivity, and thereby runs counter to human nature, with the net result that wherever it has been tried, it has by any objective measure failed to meet human aspirations. Ballot by purchase, if only the voters would fully realise it, is the way that common folk can properly express their will and their ethics, and it has the power to change the world.
Extrapolate that very real example to the four corners of the globe, and to any aspect of our economic lives. If no one bought rhino horns, we wouldn’t have rhino poaching; if there were no addicts, we would have no drug dealers; if farmers didn’t preferentially use GMO seed, Monsanto wouldn’t bother producing it; when people like you and me desist from asking for credit so that we can get things before we can afford them, banks will stop putting us into debt. The consumers are masters of their own destinies in all these matters; the suppliers are just their obedient servants.
Free markets evolved naturally as humans matured as a species. They do not have to be enforced from the top down as regulated markets do. The free market is as natural a part of Homo sapiens’ evolution as trade, barter, and the division of labour. The great problem we face now is how much we ought to interfere with what is intrinsically natural to people, and in any case, why we would want to do that. If it is just to impose our own personal morality upon broader society, it’s time we paused to think again.
But we are used to this sort of dilemma; it’s called soul searching.


In very nearly every police shooting we see on American TV, the victim is black. Those are the only cases that are widely reported, and the only cases acted upon by the Black Lives Matter movement. Does either the media reporting or the public activism in the streets reflect the reality of the situation? Are black people being deliberately killed by police in preference to killing white people?
Actually, it is the diametric opposite of reality on the ground.
Police in the USA shoot and kill twice as many white people as black.
In 2015, The Washington Post launched a real-time database to track fatal police shootings, and the project continues this year. As of Sunday, 1,502 people have been shot and killed by on-duty police officers since Jan. 1, 2015. Of them, 732 were white, and 381 were black.
An attempt is made to obfuscate the actual figures by invoking the ratio of blacks to whites in the general population, as if that bears on the matter. It does not; the argument is statistically invalid. The correct statistical base is the ratio of blacks to whites amongst those who were confronted by armed police. You’ll find that it is the reverse of the ratio in general population (the statistics vary considerably with time, type of situation, and geographic location, but at worst, there is numerical equality of blacks, whites, and Hispanics).
That in itself is cause for concern, but that is not the point. Where more blacks than whites were confronted, yet more whites than blacks were killed, the argument that blacks are killed by police more frequently and more preferentially than whites fails completely.
In all situations in the USA in the last decade where police officers are looking at a suspect over the barrel of a gun, they are more likely to pull the trigger if the target suspect is white and restrain themselves if the target is black.
And then look at the ratio of whites to blacks amongst the shooters compared with whites and blacks in the police generally, and you have another statistical nuance. Both white and black police officers show a tendency to shoot whites rather than blacks in any given confrontation.
If we look at homicides in the USA generally, yet another nuanced picture emerges. From 2010 to 2014, the total number of murders and non-negligent homicides remained at more or less 14,000 per annum, so I’ll take 2013 as reasonably representative year for our purposes here. According to FBI statistics, in 2013, 3005 white people were murdered; they were killed by, inter alia, 2509 white people and 409 black people. In the same year, 2491 black people were murdered, and the racial breakdown of the offenders was 189 white and 2245 black. In other words, in society at large, excluding police action, it is clear that people tend by a great margin to murder their own, so the racial argument raised in the police shooting case is absent in the bigger picture. It can be seen as tacit support for Darwin’s assertion that competition for dominance occurs mostly within groups and not between them.
Be that as it may, if we now look at the homicides in general society, and express the number of murders by race we find that a disproportionately high number of blacks commit murders. This far exceed their portion of the general population, so if the police act fairly in arresting murderers, they will be found to be restraining blacks more frequently than the numbers of blacks presenting in wider society. It’s important to note that in this example, there is no racial bias; the police are reacting post hoc to crimes that have been committed without reference to the race of the perpetrator. However, it is equally important to note that given the statistics available to law enforcement, they would be foolish and misguided if they were to ignore the race of the victim in profiling the probable murderer.
There are multiple layers to this problem, and we can’t look to political activists for the right answers I’m afraid.
1. My observations in the US lead me to think that blacks particularly (but not only) have an attitude towards civil discipline and the police which tends to get them noticed for the wrong reasons. Then, because of this attitude, police overreact, and then the attitude gets even worse. Catch 22.
2. The numbers show us that policemen of all races in the US restrain their trigger fingers when the target is black. I guess this is a direct result of the socio-political pressure they feel. Somehow, to level the playing field, we have to get the police to be more rational when they have the power of life and death over a suspect, but that’s also a tough one because the suspect is perceived to have the same power over the police officer. Everything happens in split seconds in a highly charged atmosphere. No easy answers when it comes to human nature…
Now we come to the real issue: Media bias. During the time that the US media have been so graphically reporting homicide by police on black victims, more than twice as many whites were killed by the same police forces. None was reported in the media. They were completely ignored as if white lives are less important than black lives.
That is racial bias of the worst, most insidious kind.

Each of my books in a paragraph, by Hilton Ratcliffe

My books:

1. The Virtue of Heresy – Confessions of a Dissident Astronomer (AuthorHouse, 2006). The mission of this book was to make the conflicting results in science accessible to the average enquiring reader. Written in a conversational style, employing a fictional space taxi driver named Haquar as a guide, my Heresy takes the reader on a journey from the basics of natural philosophy, through cosmology and Big Bang theory, and on to the structure of the Solar System, the wonders of chemistry and the basic elements, electric universe theory, mathematical philosophy, Einstein’s Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and String theory – all in ordinary English with no mathematics at all! It’s a must read for anyone seeking the big answers. The Virtue of Heresy was nominated for the London School of Economics’ prestigious Lakatos Award for literature of outstanding service to the understanding of science.

2. The Static Universe – Exploding the Myth of Universal Expansion (C. Roy Keys, Montreal, 2008). Following on the success of Heresy, and a glowing review by BBC’s Sky at Night, I visited Sir Patrick Moore at his home in Sussex, and as one of his nurses put it, I became “part of the family”. During one of my visits, Sir Patrick insisted that I write a book called The Static Universe, which was to expose the lack of real evidence favouring the prevailing Big Bang theory. He could see the situation more clearly than I, and I am now very glad I listened to him (not that I had much choice, mind you!). Although the style is still fairly conversational with very little mathematics, The Static Universe is written for a more qualified readership. I assumed that readers interested in universal expansion would have a fairly good grasp of astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology, and even though the jargon is kept constrained, there is a glossary of terms at the back to help readers that might stick on some the terms being used. This book was very well received by both amateurs and professionals in space science, and led to my being invited to guest lecture on astrophysics at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, one of the world’s finest universities.

3. Stephen Hawking Smoked My Socks – How Beliefs Contaminate Our Opinions: An Astrophysicist’s Perspective Muse Harbor Publishing (MHP), 2014). Socks, as it is affectionately referred to, is my magnum opus, quite likely the last book I’ll write. With that sobering thought in mind, and with the persistent encouragement from my good friend Ian Campbell-Gillies, I fought through debilitating illness and misfortune to put my all into this book. I realised that it had to be written in everyday language to reach as wide a readership as possible, yet I had to achieve that without dumbing it down. From the reviews I’ve received so far, I seem to have achieved that goal. This is a how-to book that is applicable to every single rational person on planet Earth, so the target of 160,000 sales is not hopelessly optimistic. Socks has had not one bad review so far, so why not give it a whirl? :)http://smile.amazon.com/l/B001JS1GJQ/ref=smi_www_rco2_go_smi_2072677762?ie=UTF8&%252AVersion%252A=1&%252Aentries%252A=0

Paleface Speak With Forked Tongue

It’s going on 6am, I’m on my third cup of tea spiced with, shall we say, analgesia naturalis, while we – the civilised world, that is – wait patiently for the cricket ODI against New Zealand to commence (the match in Hamilton is delayed by rain, as if nobody saw THAT coming, hahahaha). I had no electricity, no Telkom connectivity, and quarter-pressure water yesterday, so I’ve been channel-hopping this morning, catching up on current affairs through the thick haze of TV channels’ partisan persuasions. I’m kinda getting used to to the partisanship of just about everyone who’s got anything to say, so I’m developing neural filters to get the information elephant to lean my way so that I can deal with things rationally. One of the global effects of Trumpalism is an intense exaggeration of partisan brinkmanship – let’s face it, hardly a soul on Earth is neutral about geopolitics these days.

I’ve got some time on my hands, so I’d like to comment on the speeches that have dominated the Northern hemisphere news in the last few days. I listened to Mike Pence’s speech, and I was, I found, way more impressed than I suppose I should have been. He said all the right things, clearly and without fear, and he sounded to me as if he really understood what he was saying and meant it. It occurred to me that I was admiring Pence’s oratory rather too much, simply because I am always drawing mental comparison with the unhinged diatribes of Donald Trump.


When President Trump makes a speech, I am quite frankly embarrassed for him and for the American people. I belong to that sub-group of political animals who hold unashamed conservative values, think the political left is dangerously idealistic, who like to promote many of the policies being put to the people by the Trump administration, but who think that Trump is not a president’s arse. His media briefing the other other day was even worse than usual. What did he say about the pressing political issues that landed on his desk and our tvs recently? Nothing. He just rambled on about one thing – Donald Trump and the media. His overwhelming concern, it appears to me, is ratings. He takes political showbusiness to a whole new level. Good grief, how did the free world end up with this? Is Trump the price we have to pay to swing the world towards natural conservatism? All I can hope for, I suppose is that Trump will let his cabinet actually run the show while he develops narcissism as “finely-tuned” as his coiffure.


Back to Vice President Pence. I think a great many people who heard his speech yesterday breathed a collective sigh of relief. We really needed to hear that, Mike, thank you. Our lingering uneasiness though stems from uncertainty about whether what Pence says truly represents Trump’s political policies. That’s what worries me more than anything about the 2017 US presidency.


From Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate:
“Until recently the intuitive concept of the soul served us pretty well. Living people had souls, which come into existence at the moment of conception and leave their bodies when they die. Animals, plants, and inanimate objects do not have souls at all. But science is showing that what we call the soul – the locus of sentience, reason, and will – consists of the information-processing activity of the brain, an organ governed by the laws of biology. In an individual person it comes into being gradually through the differentiation of tissues growing from a single cell. In species it came into existence gradually as the forces of evolution modified the brains of simpler animals. And though our concept of souls used to fit pretty well with natural phenomena – a woman was either pregnant or not, a person was either dead or alive – biomedical research is now presenting us with cases where the two are out of register. These cases are not just scientific curiosities but are intertwined with pressing issues such as contraception, abortion, infanticide, animal rights, cloning, euthanasia, and research involving human embryos, especially the harvesting of stem cells.”

I have long maintained that the liberal left’s conception of what the needs of poor people should be is based on unforgivable intellectual arrogance. The entire Green movement is based, I believe, on this type of socialist fantasy, and is not a little bit hypocritical. Top-down socialism rests on the premise that some or other elite (and implicitly moral, incorruptible) leadership bureau can best decide what’s good for you and me, and if we object, we ought to be ideologically restructured so that we see that the state and its government is the sole arbiter of what our needs are and how many of them should be ignored because they are simply manifestations of materialist greed. Co-founder of Greenpeace and now green sceptic, Canadian environmentalist Patrick Moore, is worth reading on the subject. He saw the direct Marxist transformation of proper environmental organisations like Greenpeace from the inside. The sequential demise of Soviet-led communism and rise of green socialism is not a freakish coincidence. It’s a case of the devil finding work for idle hands.

From Peter Foster’s Why We Bite The Invisible Hand, chapter 15: Global Salvationism –

“Sustainability had profound conceptual and practical problems quite beyond its implicit denial of any ‘natural order’ that might both create wealth and protect the environment. How could anybody possibly know the ‘needs of the present’, let alone the needs of the future? Indeed, how could anybody gauge the ‘needs’ of even a single individual, or compare those of any two? Moreover, although there is no way of measuring needs, we could be sure that not all present needs were being met, so why should those of the future? In fact, the sustainable developers believed that assessing needs wasn’t a problem; they would tell humanity what its needs should be.
“The word ‘sustainable’ was an Orwellian term designed not to clarify thinking but to block it. After all, who could support unsustainability? Friedrich Hayek had once identified ‘social’ as the ultimate ‘weasel word’ that sucked the life from nouns to which it was attached, often reversing their meaning. Hence ‘social democracy’ was a cover for a non-democratic agenda, ‘social justice’ a code for forced redistribution and ‘social market economy’ a term for an economy with crippled markets. Similarly, sustainable development essentially meant stopping – or severely constraining – development, at least in the advanced countries, while pursuing socialist-style, top-down programs in poor nations.”

DEMOCRACY IN THE MARKETPLACE (c Hilton Ratcliffe, 2016)


Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. — Lord Acton

Thus is born the idea of the “philosopher-king”, the wise person who accepts the power thrust upon him by people who are wise enough to choose a good master. This is the main thesis of Socrates in the Republic, that the most wisdom the masses can muster is the wise choice of a ruler. — Wikipedia, Plato.

Let’s start at the beginning. What are the first principles? We are trying to put together a template of democratic governance for which we pinched a 17th century title: Political economy. The successful economic system must best meet the population’s realistic expectations and aspirations. It’s all about people.

The essential principle of democracy is this: It is a systematic reflection of the will of an identifiable group of people in a particular territory. Democracy comes in a variety of flavours, but they all start from there. Ideally, the ballot should inform rulers, and their style of government should reflect the aggregate opinion of citizens.

If a leader imposes on his people that which they desire, it is not tyranny; it is the opposite. If a system provides infrastructure for the electorate to sell their labour so that they can in return improve their lot in life, it is not slavery; it is the opposite. If an enterprise employs people for two dollars a day who prior to that employment had only one dollar a day, it is not a pittance; it is a 100% improvement in their material circumstances.

All good so far. Then we factor in human nature and it starts to go haywire.

If we were to devolve power down to grass roots, the corruption unfortunately passes with it. When human nature has the muscle to unilaterally impose its will, the result is seldom pretty. We are in that age right now; disproportionately effective power vests in the hands of mere individuals, commoners in the herd. It’s just a short hop from zealous activism to über-violent terrorism, where deadly forces that formerly belonged exclusively to the leaders of nations now empower ordinary citizens. The anonymous, skulking ideological foot soldier is now master of all he surveys, and he makes mockery of our dearest democratic principles.

Confluence 2017

It’s ironical that as I become decrepit, I experience also the most exciting intellectual era of my life. Stephen Hawking Smoked My Socks is published, my mindset declared, and now I’m exposed to powerful streams of thought that marry with the Socks thesis and move it forward. New ways of thinking about human behaviour and the relationships between science and belief, and economics and morality build a tide of understanding that I could never have foreseen.

Once it had become clear that we are only marginally more civilised than chimps (Robert Ardrey); that we have genetically imprinted human nature, including morals (Stephen Pinker); that our rational minds are spin doctors for the genome, and that our beliefs are expressions of an innately righteous morality (Jonathan Haidt); and finally and more specifically, that the market of exchanged values enables an extended social order far wider than kinship (FA Hayek), I had the novel task of pulling it all together into a confluence of principles that might reveal a workable social model. The rather startling discovery for me was the fact that one of the fibres that makes up human nature is economics. It’s as important to our species as territory and grouping.

The only way I could achieve that sort of inclusive vision is by stepping back several layers and using a wide angle lens. Now, what I have come to realise is that stepping backwards moves one towards objectivity and in turn, that means departing, albeit momentarily, from my own genetic purpose as an animal. I would from time to time be compelled to challenge my own beliefs and moral bias, without necessarily losing them.

To illustrate the journey I have embarked upon, let me go back to the start of this phase of my journey, which had to deal with the frustration that science had become a political creature quite devoid of the guidelines laid out by Newton, Kuhn, and Popper. All my books, on reflection, are actually not about physics or space science per se, but rather, if I may label them briefly, about the unseemly haste with which scientists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries adopt and canonise hypotheses. We are in the age of Standard Models, with vast implications for empirical science. If we are to understand this phenomenon, we are just going to have to become sociologists, ethologists, evolutionists, and moral psychologists. It makes doing physics properly inordinately difficult, but we have no choice, I’m afraid.

In Socks, I laid out the following propositions for review by my peers:

·        Human behaviour is the outcome of three influences: Instinct, belief, and free will.

·        Belief and instinct are two sides of the same coin; belief is instinctual.

·        Instinct matures as we evolve as organisms.

·        Free will, such as it may be, including rational thought, plays a very small part in what we ultimately do, both individually and socially.

·        Our whole social construct and tribalism are produced by evolution to enhance the survival of our species, and are written into a genetic template in our cells.

·        Homo sapiens is a highly socialised, territorial species, and inter-tribal conflict and warfare are natural consequences of this.

·        The more natural our social model, that is, the more closely aligned to our instinctual character, the more successful it will be, and vice versa.

·        Beliefs are promulgated from a self-perceived moral high ground.

·        Beliefs always precede our articulated reasons for believing; justification and rationalisation of our point of view are invariably post hoc.

·        Models are hypo-stacks (hierarchical stacks of hypotheses).

·        Reality and truth are independent of any observer.

·        Truth is obtained by matching pure reason to physical reality.

After completing Socks, my thinking turned to social organisation, and the crucial role played by economics in our evolution. In the process of attempted a dialogue on economics with my good friend and advisor Ian Campbell-Gillies, he pointed out that economics, or any other social system for that matter, without morality makes no meaningful contribution to the improvement of our species. Instinctively, I felt he was right, but that led me forthwith to the whole notion of morality and how it affects us. I was disturbed to discover that I knew very little about morality; I didn’t really understand what it was, where it came from, and how it affects us.

It was economics that pointed me in the right direction. Economic systems are in fact sets of morals. The father of capitalism, Adam Smith, was an 18th century moralist whose first book was entitled The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Only after that did he write his magnum opus, On the Wealth of Nations. Suddenly I had a glimmer of understanding. I knew I was looking in the right place, but it was a moral psychologist who let it all click into place, and illustrated to me where the glaring deficiencies of Socks lay.

Free-market capitalism bought further clarification to the table of arguments, and added support to the following principles put forward rather too timidly in Socks:


·        The populants of any animal species are never equal. Inequality is a natural and inviolable property of natural procreation and evolution.

·        The direct consequence of inequality is intra-special competition and, in humans, specialisation of labour.

·        Free market commerce and the investment of capital evolved naturally from pre-historic trade and barter; socialism, by contrast, is an intellectually derived, artificial model. Free market capitalism aligns with human nature, warts and all; socialism is diametrically opposed to human nature.

·        Competition naturally determines rewards, sets values, and punishes misfits. It also balances varying individual abilities by trade (the exchanging of units of value).

·        Human beings are not primarily rational animals. Irrationally-derived motivations drive us and determine our behaviour.

·        Human beings are uniquely able to create and sustain an “extended order”, that is, to form groups of common purpose beyond that defined by primitive kinship, and this has been achieved without weakening competition, groups, or territoriality.

·        The uninhibited market place is the most embracing and relevant expression of democracy, and consequently, of moralities. It is the backbone of the extended order.

Peter Foster, in his at-times over-zealous book, Why We Bite the Invisible Hand, quotes quite liberally from Jonathan Haidt, and although Haidt is too “progressive” for him, the cited passages did enough to prompt me to buy Haidt’s masterpiece, The Righteous Mind. The missing piece in the Ardrey/Climate/Friedmann/Marx/Mohammed jigsaw puzzle suddenly fell into place. Morals are a primary evolutionary instinct, and contain, define, and sustain beliefs. Beliefs are simply expressions of moral precepts. Morals, beliefs, and indeed instincts, are as much outcomes of evolutionary maturations as the mind itself. To be honest, it’s so clear in hindsight but I would not in a million years have realised it on my own. I owe Dr Haidt a tremendous debt of gratitude.

Moral psychology and evolutionary psychology, both empirical fields of study with an extensive and rigorous experimental base, added these vital illuminations to ideas put rather clumsily in Socks, or in some cases, corrected conceptual errors in Socks. Most of the following passages are quoted verbatim from Jonathan Haidt, without express permission; I cite them in terms of fair usage to promote the readership of his works.


·        Intuition first, strategic reasoning second.

·        Beliefs, points-of-view, and convictions are held in righteousness; we preach always from a moral high ground.

·        Morals bind and blind; when a group of people makes something sacred, the members of the cult lose their ability to think clearly about it. Sacredness binds people together, and then blinds them to the arbitrariness of the practice.

·        The evolutionary purpose of morality is to cement our membership of social groups; the extended order is our higher goal.

·        Morality differs around the world, even within societies; it is the first step toward understanding your righteous mind.

·        Human social behaviour is analogous to an elephant and a rider, where the rider is our mind and the elephant our intuitive, instinctive self. The purpose of the rider is to serve the elephant.

·        The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.

·        Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason; you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments.

·        Groups create supernatural beings not to explain the universe but to order their societies.

·        The very ritual practices that atheists tend to dismiss as costly, inefficient and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship.

·        People who devote their lives to studying something often come to believe that the object of their fascination is the key to understanding everything.

·        Moral matrices bind people together and blind them to the coherence, or even existence, of other matrices. This makes it very difficult for people to consider the possibility that there might really be more than one form of moral truth, or more than one valid framework for judging people or running a society.

·        Everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds. On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality —people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.

·        We are obsessively concerned about what others think of us, although much of that concern is unconscious and invisible to us.

·        Conscious reasoning functions like a press secretary who automatically justifies any position taken by the president.

·        In moral and political matters we are often groupish, rather than selfish. We deploy our reasoning skills to support our team, and to demonstrate commitment to our team.

·        Can, want and must: When we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Can I believe it?” Then we search for supporting evidence, and even if we find a single piece of supporting pseudo-evidence, we have permission to believe. We have a justification, in case anyone asks. In contrast, when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Must I believe it?” Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it.

·        Intuitively, we behave more like politicians seeking votes than scientists seeking truth. Scientists tend to behave this way too, despite their claim of objectivity.

·        The most important principle for designing an ethical society is to make sure everyone’s reputation is on the line all the time, so that bad behaviour will bring bad consequences all the time.

There is really much more to say, and the list of unpublished thoughts grows longer in bursts and then dies with my fading memory. But try I must. We are exposed to a wide array of clever thinkers, and some, I’m afraid, are too clever for their own good. How do we choose which path to follow so that we can build something meaningful and coherent in all this chaos? It occurs to me that my journey brought me to the current intersection with Jonathan Haidt in a very important way. Haidt refers to moral receptors as “tasting” the idea before we reject it or rationalise it. We encourage certain concepts more than others, and in that way build up a buttress of biases.

I was strongly influenced recently by Peter Foster’s book, Why We Bite the Invisible Hand, and the references contained therein. It was Foster who led me to Adam Smith and Milton Friedman on the plus side of economic theory, as well as to John Maynard Keynes on the negative. And along with Adam Smith, he brought me to the other unsung genius of centuries past, 18th century moral philosopher David Hume. But something unusual happened; I was going along with Foster quite nicely when he brought up the name of Jonathan Haidt, but in a condescending, somewhat critical way. That would normally cause an acolyte to reject the cited person too. But it didn’t. Quite the contrary.

I looked at the Haidt quotes with some puzzlement; what was Foster actually grumbling about? I called Haidt up on the Internet and found some critiques of his books, including the four-year-old The Righteous Mind. Despite a title that stuck in my craw, I bought the book and began to read it at the same time as the other two latest additions to my library, Ayaan Ali’s powerful work on Islam, Heretic, and Robert Spencer’s well-worked socio-political biography called simply The Truth About Muhammad. You can imagine what a bucketload of spicy ideas was being spooned into my head!

Before long, I was focussing on Haidt’s book to the exclusion of the others, which now lay at my bedside with forlorn book-markers pointing accusing fingers at me. It took me right up until chapter seven in The Righteous Mind to finally get what upset Peter Foster. Of that, more later. I am deeply impressed with Jonathan Haidt’s approach to the mysteries of human behaviour, and I’ll tell you why. Firstly, he is an empiricist who has conducted rigorous experiments to illuminate each point he makes in the book. He has done the hard yards himself, sometimes alone but more often in collaboration with other leading researchers in the field. He is not the least bit woo woo! Secondly, the book contains hundreds of footnotes and detailed references that the reader can check at his leisure. He lays it all out for us to look at. That’s the mark of a great scientist and a truly remarkable book.

Now, let’s get back to the irritation (it was no more than that) in which Peter Foster wrapped the Haidt quotes. Like me, Peter Foster is convinced of the virtues of free market capitalism as the socio-economic system best suited to human aspirations, such as they may be. Foster displays a clear grasp of Adam Smith’s invisible hand directing the flow of human endeavour, and to be quite frank, he’s one of the few human beings I’ve come across who does. Foster also understands the role of personal greed and selfishness in spreading the greatest good to the largest slice of humanity; but, in my opinion, he doesn’t totally get it. The reason, I think, is because he canonises the idea, and that blinds him to the more catholic view of Jonathan Haidt.

From The Righteous Mind, chapter seven – The Moral Foundations of Politics:

“Behind every act of altruism, hedonism, and human decency, you’ll find either selfishness or stupidity. That, at least, is the view long held by many social scientists who accepted the idea that Homo sapiens is really Homo economicus. ‘Economic man’ is a simple creature who makes all of life’s choices like a shopper in a supermarket with plenty of time to compare jars of apple sauce. If that’s your view of human nature, then it’s easy to create mathematical models of behaviour because there’s really just one principle at work: self-interest. People do whatever gets them the most benefit for the lowest cost.”

Neither Foster nor Haidt is wrong on this issue. It’s a matter of emphasis. In my view, Haidt has the better of it, because he takes a wider stance. Self-interest is certainly a fundamental motivator, as we would expect from success-based evolution, but it is not alone. Haidt goes on to illustrate just how wrong the total self-interest model is by showing us a ten question list he used in his research, where the answers can be materially manipulated by the inclusion of tweaks that introduce moral “flavours”. My own reaction as a reader confirms the results he got in the field: People are motivated by six prime moral precepts that very nearly dictate what our reactions will be. We get an intuitive flash from each of these six triggers that sets the agenda for the post hoc mental discussion we have with ourselves afterwards.

Arguably the most shocking realisation brought to me by these elite authors—Darwin, Ardrey, Haidt, Pinker, Foster, et al—is that there is no such thing as universal human rights. In fact, put to scale, there is no such thing as universal anything about Homo sapiens, certainly not amongst our rational concepts at any rate. No actual human rights! That rocked me back on my heels like I’d just been swatted by Mike Tyson. Now, in hindsight, it’s perfectly clear—of course there aren’t universal human rights, but it’s staggering how deeply etched into my psyche the notion was. Our intuitions, coming as they do from a swarm of double helixes manufacturing proteins in our cells, can and do fool us utterly. It felt as if the last vestige of liberal moral posture had been snatched from my soul and tossed into the furnace of natural contrition.

But, at the same time, it was immensely liberating. At last, I was free to grasp the nuances of the human moral matrix—the tribes, the conflicts, the superstitions, the kindness and the cruelty, all operate in equilibriums as definite and as beautiful as the ordering of galaxies. I must add that part of the relief I felt was the understanding that I’m as human as anyone else, and my elephant leans whither it will; there is no need me for to apologise for having opinions.

The danger I’m all too aware of in quoting passages selected from the Haidt thesis is that they lack the proper context. Haidt’s rigorous approach to citing and evaluating evidence is exemplary, and I must urge you to read the book before you decide how you’re going to judge human behaviour.

In summary then, we realise that morality is relative, not absolute. If we take a moral position in any political effort, we exert our own personal morality. This may conflict with the morals of those we seek to influence. What is required to solve this dilemma is a social system that seamlessly incorporates and expresses all individual morality, and allows the moral matrix most favoured by the social group to percolate to the top. Any attempt to force a particular moral standpoint at the expense of general consensus will ultimately fail.

Now what is left is for someone younger than I to pick up these disparate threads and weave them together into a coherent model of human behaviour, one that we can learn from to ultimately protect our species from suicide, or, if that’s not a good thing, at least to improve our behaviour to some significant degree.

Over to you.